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Faith Half-Mast

Written by Michael Cline : May 22, 2008

It’s that time of the year again; that blessed calendar season in which I always find myself annually infuriated and simultaneously guilty. Most people look forward to the advent of summer, meanwhile, I’m always trying to sleep through the entire first weekend. Four hints that my religious life is about to take a turn for the worse:

(1) The Indianapolis 500

(2) Click-it-or-Ticket Campaigns

(3) Picnics and BBQ’s

(4) Mass amounts of American Flags

That’s right, it’s that beacon of American civil religion, that last Monday of the month of May…strike up the John Phillip Sousa kids, it’s Memorial Day!

In years past, I’ve reacted to the infiltration of this holiday into our churches in what some would call bad taste. This usually involves a cynical blog post and spending the Sabbath day before Memorial Day in solitude and contemplation outside the walls of the local church. Last year, I bucked my own trend and sluggishly attended the United Methodist Church in the small town near the college I was enrolled in. Not to be confused with my brothers and sisters who were drunk on nationalism, I made sure to excuse myself from the choir, who on that day would be belting out The Battle Hymn of the Republic, followed only by Lee Greenwood’s civil religious anthem God Bless the USA (which was ironically re-released after the invasion of Iraq and rose to #16 on the singles chart). When everyone was shouting and standing during the key change reprise, there I was, sitting triumphantly in the pew. Sure it was lonely, but at least I was being a witness to the solitary Kingdom allegiance I had been called to. My legitimacy was proven by my haughtiness.

And this is all well and good (well actually, it’s quite pretentious and self-righteous) when I am just another visitor to just another church. But what happens when I assume a ministerial position? What happens when I am the pastor, who is expected to honor Memorial Day just like every other year, in the church I serve? Am I to send a letter to the many veterans who faithfully chair committees and take up the tithes and offerings, explaining why we won’t be honoring the troops before we take communion? Do I completely ignore the obvious holiday season? Or do I take the exact opposite track, find a Biblical text to use at my disposal, and proclaim the eradication of the idol of nationalism (but in the process, crush the hearts of my most dedicated sheep)?

If there was ever a time for the buzzword of all postmodern Christian buzzwords—imagination—it’s on Memorial Day weekend in a traditional church setting. The ground is sensitive. Any treading must be done lightly. But we also must be faithful witnesses to our residence in the Kingdom of God. The answer is rarely as simple (and destructive) as detuning the piano so Stars and Stripes Forever is left off the bulletin. There is a creative tension that exists between being prophetic and being edifying. Using Jesus Manifesto as my open-air confessional, I admit that although I usually strive to live in this tension throughout the course of the year, I dismiss it on Memorial Day and often opt for less constructive protest.

But I want this year to be different. This year has already included a switch in my thinking similar to what I’m looking for out of this, as I went from being a faithful Buy Nothing Day advocate, to being challenged by the idea of Make Something Day as a more creative alternative.

So how will your faith communities celebrate Memorial Day, if at all?

What creative solutions can you bring to the table for frustrated pastors like myself?

Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com


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Comments

Viewing 30 Comments

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    Our church will probably haul a flag up and do some sort of patriotic song or the pledge. Thank the Lord, the U.S. flag is not up in front every week. That in itself is a remarkable thing for a church in a town owned by the Military-Industrial Complex. No joke...Haliburton has their headquarters nearby.

    Well, a soft-core approach in our situation might be to take up the idea of remembrance of our "heroes" of faith within the Christian context, with a little dash of the history of Memorial Day mixed in. Folks probably won't notice the lack of a flag or soaring anthems and still have their nationalistic needs met.
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    My first Sunday as pastor of a Mennonite congregation (first Sunday of July) we sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I chose not to sing, but also not make a scene of it. I was left thinking "What have I gotten myself into now?" Good post.
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    I spoke to the pastors at our church about this (they have an American flag and a notice to pray for 'our' troops before and after every service, along with other announcements and whatnot) and their basic response was "we agree in theory, but in practice this is less controversial"

    Why they take the easy road on this issue and the high road on others makes me wonder....
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    That may be the most frustrating response ever, but at least they agree in theory. I'm yet to find too many churches that would even go that far with you (outside the historic peace churches).
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    An edifying and protest-oriented response might be to similarly sing the national anthems or raise the flags of America's enemies with a heavy emphasis on loving them. When you're just a pew-sitter, you could wear an Iranian-flag button or some such thing. At the very least it would open up conversations with people who probably won't recognize it.
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    That's a tough one, Michael. I recently endured a church breakfast sitting next to two veterans from World War 2 talk about their colonoscopies and how the boys who died invading Normandy weren't given enough credit anymore for their "good job". I found myself asking, how can we be faithful to Jesus and yet not appear as haughty youngsters who don't give a damn for the sacrifices of those we are told won our freedom? Maybe somehow we could carry the Memorial theme back a little further into history and retell the story of Jesus as God's quintessential "soldier" who fought against the powers of evil by submitting to the degrading death of the cross, who forgave his enemies and offered no resistance to his persecutors, who took the path of human defeat in order to become the victory of God. Then have the Christian Memorial feast- the bread and wine, as opposed to the barbecue. :) And I suppose there is a place for remembering all the dead soldiers from every warring nation, because it is a great tragedy and like all tragedies they must also be brought to the cross in order to be healed.
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    I'm all for remembering them in light of tragedy-- it's in the light of divinity that makes me woozy. All sacrifice is not on the same level. So how do I honor their sacrifice while still finding a way of communicating that Patton's quote of "the object of war is not to die for you country, but to make the other poor bastard die for his," while summing war up pretty accurately, does not reflect the cross of Christ?

    I'd also like to add that I have no theological objections to barbecues. ;)
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    If I were giving a pastor advice on how to preach Memorial Day, I would offer the following: remind the congregation to remember all the victims of war and other violence. There's good sermon material hidden in the fact that the U.S. no longer keeps an official count of enemy casualties and civilian casualties in our wars. I try to remember on Memorial Day that I should repent for my participation in a system that demands soldiers commit violence that harms them just as much as our "enemies."
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    And how do you navigate those who would rather you be a little more patriotic?
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    I should say up front that I am not a pastor, but am just thinking out loud (in writing...um...?). I'd point to the history of Memorial Day. It started just to remember the Union soldiers (not the Confederate soldiers) who died in the American Civil War - we excluded the southern people who died in war from the moral universe. Were they not people, made in the image of God, too? We then expanded the holiday after World War I to include all soldiers that died in war or other military operation. Our dead, but not the enemy dead. "We" are worth remembering; "they" are worth killing. And just take off from there...remembering all people.

    But, if you wanted to be reallllly subversive, just do a sermon "for all those who died for our freedom," and start into the martyrs, and let the sermon reveal that the kingdom you're referring to with patriotic fervor is not America, but the Kingdom of God.

    If people want a patriotic rally, you might refer them to the nearest BBQ. A pulpit is for preaching the word of God and the Empire doesn't get to dictate the subject matter on any given Sunday.
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    I would concur with DC. To me, the best way to honor our veterans on Memorial Day is to apologize to our veterans for causing them to go through the horrors of war .

    To me, and I think one could make a Biblical argument that, war is a consequence for our sin. I think of Deuteronomy with its curses and blessings. I think of the plague God sent on Israel because David performed a census (in order to go to war). I think of the judgement Issiah pronounced on Hezikiah for showing off his wealth to the Babylonians. If we weren't so greedy, if we didn't seek retribution, if we pursued diplomacy with more vigor than violence, we might not go to war. Of course, I recognize that other's sin may force the war issue, but even so, it take two to quarrel and we can repent of our part in the conflict.

    My grandfather told me that before the twentieth century there were great revivals after wars because people felt like war was a punishment from God. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-526764...
    Robert Newman's History of Oil describes how the first Great War of the twenty first century was about oil. If we had repented then about our greed which drives us to consume so much oil, maybe we would have avoided half (or more) the wars we've been in since then, maybe we wouldn't be in our current war, maybe we wouldn't have global warming. But it's not too late to start repenting, repenting to God, repenting to our brothers who have sacrificed their lives for our greed and pride, repent to our brothers who God in his mercy redeemed from the horrors of war, repent to our children who will bear the burden of the consequences of our greed. It's not too late to put on sack cloth and mourn like Ninevah. It's not too late to change our ways.

    May the Spirit who came at Pentecost convict our hearts, and comfort us in our mourning.
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    War, like sickness, death and poverty, is a result of the fall and our own sin. (Judges 5:8, Gen 4:7-8, James 4:1) As Kingdom people we should be beating our swords into plowshares now.

    Your grandfather had insight that many religious today do not.
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    I remember when 9/11 happened, I went to the church my parents attend with my mother. The church had called an emergency prayer meeting that evening in response to the happenings of the day. The prayer service was presided over by one of the elders of the church since they were without a pastor at that time. To my great surprise, they prayed not only for the victims of the terrorist attacks, but also for those who carried out the attacks. Not at all what I would have expected from a church that displayed the American flag in the front of the sanctuary right next to the cross! I was very impressed in the way that those people conducted themselves that evening. Christ was indeed working in the hearts of those people that day.

    Go ahead and pray for the troops. They need all the prayers they can get. But, so do those whom this nations wars against. Pray for all of them.

    Oh, by the way, I like DC's suggestions for sermon topics.
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    Memorial Day can be a day that we reflect upon the folly of war.
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    This morning (Sunday) I was asked to play at a service at our local Christian camp. I suppose I knew what I was getting myself into; I was not prepared for the preacher to go so far as to renounce pacifism as "illogical" and wrong. I wanted to implode.
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    What did the pastor recommend in it's place?
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    The usual "realistic" appraisal of the necessity of war and the possibility of participating in armed conflict as a means of working for justice. Especially since, you know, we have democracy and stuff now.

    btw, not that it matters but I should have said "denounce" instead of "renounce" in my comment.
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    Here's where Ellul's introduction to Subversion Of Christianity still gets me (paraphrased, as my copy's loaned out):

    We make 2 mistakes when lifting our 'enlightened' perspective above those of the past. In reality, we are making the same compromises as the church as always made; under feudalism, capitulating to feudalism, under fascism, capitulating to fascism, under democracy, capitulating to democracy, etc.

    The second mistake is that of arrogance; that our capitulation is somehow better, more honorable, more reasonable, more realistic than those of the past, and condemn past heroes of the faith to show ourselves in a better light.
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    That's good stuff.